A chilly masterpiece about the small-minded circumstances and devastating consequences of bullying, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" is in the finA chilly masterpiece about the small-minded circumstances and devastating consequences of bullying, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" is in the fine tradition of gothic women writers like Carson McCullers.
Jackson creates compelling empathy for a family of outcasts and the mentally-disturbed woman-child who decides to do something about their plight.
Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian Blackwood -- suffering from dementia and possibly heart failure -- live together in that icon of the dark imagination, a forbidding old house on the edge of wherever. But Jackson adds an important twist: The house is made spooky not by supernatural entities, but by the demons of the human mind and heart.
Ironically nicknamed "Merricat," Mary Katherine, the story's narrator, fills the tale with magical thinking, describing the many odd, fascinating, and disturbing ways she copes with loneliness, grief, and coming of age in a province of petty grievances.
America boasts a rich pantheon of powerful women writers who tackle subjects head-on their male counterparts broach obliquely at best.
From the angst of an alienated heart in the works of Jackson, McCullers and Sylvia Plath, to the bitter divide of racial injustice or the quiet repose of the retrospective soul in the stories of Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green," or Flannery O'Connor's "Everything that Rises Must Converge," female writers have a unique take on the American experience.
Jackson's tight, clean prose -- she could give Hemingway a run for his money -- beats with a dark heart of declarative sentences that wrap the novel in a lean 146 pages.
"I am chilled," Merricat declares, whenever contemplating a distasteful notion, like the thought of sister Constance venturing into the unwelcoming village.
Merricat's creepy encounters with her long-lost cousin Charles -- an uncouth, unwelcome invader by any other name, come to claim his share of the family fortune -- left me chilled, with Jackson hitting every child's emotional buttons, like the way Charles talks around Merricat.
Like the way he ignores her, even to her face. Like the way he talks to her beloved black cat Jonas, and the dread-inspiring thoughts he leaves in his wake. "I wonder if Merricat knows what I do to people who don't like me," Charles asks Jonas, in front of Merricat, of course.
The fate life -- and Merricat -- ultimately visit on the family comes as both inevitable and surprising. The town's response is tragic but typical, the devastation final, and the two young women strangely and peacefully resigned. If anything, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a prosaic ode to the inescapability of our personal choices.
We have always lived in castles of our own making, and we always will.